Have you ever searched for a therapist and read a bunch of acronyms (PCT, ACT, DBT, XYZ?) defining how they work and you’re just like, “huh?” Well, we get it, and we also think that it’s important to be as informed as possible when it comes to your health. So let’s decode and define some of the most common therapy methods so you can know what each approach means, helping you make an informed choice when looking for therapy.
The Person Centered Therapy approach was developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s. At the time, it upended the way psychologists worked with their patients in that it changed the relationship from one of an expert-patient model to a more empathic, empowering approach for the client. The therapist motivates the client to take the lead in finding what serves them most, believing that everyone contains the capacity and desire for personal growth.
This therapy approach is based on this idea of an “unconditional positive regard”. The therapist sees their client not as a damaged person to fix, but rather visualizes them as if they are self-actualized and empowers them to find that potential within themselves, often taking the client’s lead during therapy sessions.
The Person Centered Therapy approach has influenced many of the most common techniques in mental health, which is why you’ll see this idea guiding most modern practices.
Therapy relationships that may benefit from PCT include people who may be resistant to authority, or who value a more relational experience in therapy. Therapists who are skilled at building trust and relationships, are genuine in their care and empathic in their relation to their clients typically use PCT in their approach.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapy approach that focuses on problem-solving skills, connecting your behaviors to the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that inspired them. It’s based on the idea that what you think and believe informs your actions – you are not simply responding to the things that happen to you.
Here’s an example:
A person with anxiety goes on vacation believing that nothing will go according to plan. This mindset, which is controlled by anxiety, blocks out the person’s ability to see the good things that happen, only leaving room for them to focus on anything that wasn’t exactly to plan. At the end of the trip they are likely to remember it as a failed vacation, looking past the seamless transportation experience or the nice hotel room, focusing instead on the things that went wrong, like getting locked out of the pool room or being late to a planned outing. Seeing things this way only reinforces their mindset of anxiety, digging them deeper into the negative cycle they are in.
CBT is all about restructuring these thoughts and beliefs so we don’t walk around the world being self-fulfilling prophets of negativity. You will unlearn negative reactions and practice approaching situations with a new mindset.
To do this, your therapist will break down larger problems that seem overwhelming into smaller, more manageable goals. Over time, this process will help you adjust the way you think about, feel about, and react to obstacles.
CBT takes time and commitment to work. It’s not a “quick fix” for issues, as progress is incremental and deliberate. Training your brain to react differently to challenges takes time, practice, and a structured therapy environment.
Anyone who finds themselves stuck in cycles of negative thought patterns, lives with anxiety, is overwhelmed by large problems in their lives, or works well in structured therapy environments that take time.
“Dialectical” means bringing opposite ideas together, such as acceptance of difficult situations, or the ability to see all sides of a problem. DBT works to ensure that the participant feels accepted and validated as they are, before they are asked to consider change.
DBT was developed in the 1970’s when Marsha Linehan adjusted her typical Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach in hopes of seeing better results in her clients with difficult issues. A DBT practicing therapist will teach four basic skills: emotion regulation, mindfulness, relationship skills, and distress tolerance.
Additionally, there are four main focuses of treatment when using the DBT method. First, stabilization – managing any crises that need to be addressed before other work can be done. Next, exploration, which is when emotional pain and traumatic experiences are brought to the surface and observed safely. Third, teaching manageable stability, happiness, and reasonable goal setting. Finally, therapists will offer ongoing support options for moving forward in life, working toward fulfillment.
DBT is a therapy mode used when a condition in therapy comes up as “difficult to treat”, and other therapy methods have not been effective in improving things, or a person has chronic or severe mental health issues, such as self harm addictions, PTSD, and others.
EFT is based on the idea that emotions and emotional awareness are guides, and that actively avoiding unpleasant emotions can actually cause us and those around us harm. EFT can help you become better at learning from emotions that cause a beneficial response and deal with unproductive emotions better.
A core concept of EFT called “emotion schemes” is based on scientific studies about how emotions are created and how they impact our behaviors, thoughts, bodies, and basic functioning. Understanding your individual emotion schemes is a big part of EFT and helps you identify, accept, and change unhelpful patterns.
Basically, the goals of EFT are to increase awareness and acceptance of emotions, identify whether emotions are helpful or unhelpful, and find ways to use helpful ones or change unhelpful ones.
Emotion-Focused Therapy can be helpful for people who feel debilitated by their emotional experience, lack emotional awareness, or are triggered into anxiety or depression by strong emotions. They may begin to see their emotions as sources of information and learn to welcome, experience, and regulate the impact of their emotional experience.
ACT teaches a new way to understand and experience difficult things in life. Stemming from the hope of preventing recurring issues from resurfacing and bringing people back to therapy who have seemingly overcome a challenge, ACT presents the idea that we can live happier lives by shifting the way we think about our pain rather than try to avoid or solve it.
ACT works with the fundamental idea of accepting things as they are, without trying to avoid or change them. Mindfulness techniques are often used both in and out of therapy to practice this mindset shift. Mindfulness helps to remove you from your thinking/reactive self, and allows you to observe the present moment, detaching yourself from your knee-jerk thoughts and emotions.
This way of working through psychological problems creates a new kind of relationship with challenges. It helps you to remove the need to control painful experiences, and gives you skills to react in alignment with your personal values.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy can be helpful for anyone who is struggling with chronic mental health conditions and feels the need for a new mindset surrounding their challenging experiences. ACT is commonly used to help with the treatment of substance abuse, psychosis, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, OCD, medical-related stress, and eating disorders.
Motivational Interviewing is a short-term way to begin a therapeutic relationship where you might not be ready to make changes that would be beneficial to your mental or overall health.
Your therapist takes on a listening approach to help you uncover a desire or motivation for a needed change. You would begin by discussing the need for a change, whether it be in behavior, lifestyle, mindset, or something else. Your therapist will listen and repeat back to you any revealed thoughts or goals so you can begin to move toward your own internal desires and motivations. MI is a powerful and empowering process intended to prepare you for a longer term method of therapy like DBT or CBT.
Motivational Interviewing can be helpful for anyone who is struggling to find internal motivation to make life changes. If you are experiencing ambivalence or even strong negative feelings about engaging in therapy, motivational interviewing can help. It is often used to help those struggling with addictions, chronic health conditions, anger, or who may simply be resistant to change.
We hope this summary of some of the more common therapy approaches can help you to understand how your therapist may approach your individual needs. We think it’s amazing that scientists have been able to observe the different ways that a therapy relationship can approach an issue to be as beneficial as possible.
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